Bending capitalism to fight climate change

Executive Editor

Governments, corporations and nonprofits are coming up with novel ways to prod capitalism to help tackle—instead of fuel—climate change.

At least eight initiatives launched in the last two years are trying to push supply and demand of clean energy technologies that otherwise would not take root fast enough to help ward off the worst impacts of a warming planet.

The efforts include government-led initiatives like the First Movers Coalition and industry-led approaches like Frontier. They are getting a boost from the Inflation Reduction Act, the United States’ largest-ever law funding clean energy, and two other U.S. laws passed over the past year.

There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to bend capitalism to what we need it to be. But we’re proving that the existing forces of capitalism can be outsmarted and redefined for better outcomes for all.
Dawn Lippert, founding partner of Earthshot Ventures and founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a global climate technology investor and nonprofit organization

Capitalism, of course, is a broad term and we can’t tackle the entire concept in one fell swoop, but we can start to unpack it. The initiatives covered here focus on supply and demand, a core tenet of any market economy. That’s the foundation of capitalism, which is powered by free markets, private corporations and profits.

The initiatives include:

  • Mission Possible Partnership (MPP) is an industry- and nonprofit-led effort launched in January 2021 at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. Its goal is to help decarbonize seven industrial sectors, in part by spurring demand for cleaner industrial technologies, along with new policy and finance approaches.
  • The First Movers Coalition was launched by the U.S. State Department in November 2021 at the United Nations climate conference. It has nine other governments involved and more than four dozen companies across a wide range of sectors, including Apple and Volvo Group. The coalition, an outgrowth of MPP, is trying to coordinate demand from those companies for new technologies in eight sectors particularly hard to clean up, including aviation and shipping. Efforts to tackle two more (chemicals and concrete) are planned for launch at the U.N. climate conference next month.
  • The Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative is a U.N.-led initiative launched in 2021. Its goals include stimulating demand for low-carbon steel and cement, particularly from governments.
  • Frontier was launched in April by four tech companies (Stripe, Alphabet, Meta and Shopify and consultancy McKinsey) to commit to purchasing $925 million worth of carbon removal from companies working to develop the technology over the next decade.
  • Breakthrough Energy, a network of clean energy initiatives founded by Bill Gates, launched a program in July 2021 called Catalyst, which seeks to help fund first-of-their-kind commercial projects in hard-to-abate sectors like aviation and manufacturing. While the other initiatives focus largely on demand, Catalyst is looking to help ensure supply of technologies will be available to meet that demand.
  • The Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA), launched in April 2021, connects suppliers of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to corporate buyers. It’s an example of translating into action the ambition of efforts like the First Movers Coalition.
  • SteelZero (launched in December 2020) and ConcreteZero (launched in July 2022) are two initiatives by the nonprofit Climate Group working to spur demand of clean concrete and steel.

The fact that these were all launched in the last two years is impressive. But limitations exist, including the fact they’re all voluntary.

The long-term viability of some of these programs is also questionable if leadership changes. The First Movers Coalition, for example, is spearheaded by President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry. When he leaves that post, questions will likely arise about FMC’s future.

Another challenge: potential redundancy.

“It’s starting to become a crowded dance floor in the world of helping make SAF happen,” said Andrew Chen, an expert on sustainable aviation at the nonprofit RMI. That sentiment is generally the case for other hard-to-abate sectors.

“There are some challenges in creating a unified approach, and we don’t want to confuse people with ideas and approaches,” Chen said. “I’d rather have that problem than not get anyone to pay attention at all.”

Editor’s note: Breakthrough Energy, which supports Cipher, is also a partner with FMC and helps fund MPP.